William Shakespeare's play Coriolanus tells the story of the professional soldier Caius Martius. When the people of Rome take to the streets after their grain stores have been emptied he shows his contempt for the people who do not serve in the military and is prepared to use force rather than negotiation to ensure order returns to the streets. He despises the people and shows it too; he does not have a high opinion of his political masters either.
An external enemy the Volscians led by Caius Martius' personal arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) wants to use this opportunity to conquer Rome. Gaius Martius comes to the rescue and at his own initiative leads a raid on the Volscian city of Corioles.
For his crucial role in the victory over the Volscians at Corioles, the government of Rome bestows on him the title “Coriolanus”.
Coriolanus' mother, Volumina (Vanessa Redgrave), who has great influence on him, now encourages him to run for the office of Consul of the Roman Republic. He easily wins the support of the Senate. It is not his charisma or his political connections that brought him to the top but his his deeds and sense of duty. Believing he merits being Consul, he shows his contempt for a system in which the people (plebs) have a say in consular appointments. This makes him enemies of the Tribunes who represent the people. His bid for the consulship is rejected and Coriolanus is banned from Rome. Furious about having been scorned, he enters an alliance with his former enemies the Volscians and in particular with his former arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius. He starts a campaign against Rome providing crucial assistance and military leadership to the Volscian troops against his home country Rome.
Director Ralph Fiennes, who also plays the title role, and writer John Logan have transported the action from Roman times into a near present, with the feel of the Balkans of the early 1990s, modern weaponry and 24 hour news-channels included. This works well. Indeed, one of the more comedic touches is to have Jon Snow, the actual anchorman of the UK's Channel 4 News programme, deliver narration and interviews in Shakespearian style. The war scenes are spectacular and realistic and the contrast with the formal language of another age is handled very well by the excellent ensemble of actors. The themes ambition, wounded pride, meritocracy and. democracy, soldier against politician and a mother's sometimes pernicious influence on her son are brought out very well.
With his first film as a director, Ralph Fiennes convinces with a clear and thought-provoking version of the Shakespeare play. Without compromising on the language, he manages to convey the story line clearly through intelligent direction keeping a modern cinema audience, that may otherwise struggle with the classic theatre text, glued to the big silver-screen. Quite an achievement.